A Neural Signature of Anorexia Nervosa in the Ventral Striatal Reward System

University of Ulm, Department of Psychiatry, Leimgrubenweg 12-14, 89075 Ulm, Germany.
American Journal of Psychiatry (Impact Factor: 13.56). 10/2009; 167(2):206-12. DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09010071
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Animal studies assessing mechanisms of self-starvation under conditions of stress and diet suggest a pivotal role for the mesolimbic reward system in the maintenance of core symptoms in anorexia nervosa, which is corroborated by initial empirical evidence in human studies. The authors examined activity in the ventral striatal system in response to disease-specific stimuli in women with acute anorexia nervosa.
Participants were 14 women with acute anorexia nervosa and 14 matched healthy comparison women who underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during evaluation of visual stimuli depicting a female body with underweight, normal weight, and overweight canonical whole-body features according to standardized body mass indices. Participants were required to process each stimulus in a self-referring way. Ratings for each weight category were used as the control task.
Behaviorally, women with anorexia nervosa provided significantly higher positive ratings in response to underweight stimuli than in response to normal-weight stimuli, while healthy comparison women showed greater preference for normal-weight stimuli relative to underweight stimuli. Functionally, ventral striatal activity demonstrated a highly significant group-by-stimulus interaction for underweight and normal-weight stimuli. In women with anorexia nervosa, activation was higher during processing of underweight stimuli compared with normal-weight stimuli. The reverse pattern was observed in healthy comparison women.
These findings are consistent with predictions in animal studies of the pivotal role of the human reward system in anorexia nervosa and thus support theories of starvation dependence in maintenance of the disorder.

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    • "For instance, evidence has been found that in the severe and enduring stage of AN brain size is reduced particularly in the cerebellum and mesencephalon [46]. The atypical brain activation to illness relevant cues (for example salient body shape images) is more pronounced in adults than adolescents [43] [44]. "
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